Ideas Hub: Emad Mostaque on “Daesh and the “Islamicisation” of Supremacism”
After the spate of recent terror attacks by Daesh, the Arabic acronym for the so-called “Islamic State”, the question of why they carry out these heinous acts and how we can stop them has resurfaced. While there are many factors involved in recruitment and radicalisation, studying the group it becomes clear that their primary driver is not perceived injustice, but a deadly supremacist narrative similar to that of the Nazis or KKK.
We have been fighting the “War on Terror” for 14 years and have been unsuccessful on every front, spending huge amounts of money and killing countless civilians yet seeing the number of terrorists increase a hundred-fold.
The original target of this campaign was al Qaeda after 9/11. The origins of al Qaeda were in the Soviet-Afghan conflict when a few thousand foreign fighters joined the 250,000 Afghan “mujahadeen” through to 1989. This was actively encouraged by opponents of the Soviets and portrayed as a “defensive” jihad, or holy war, against godless Soviets, channeling religious community ties and empathy for their foreign policy goals. Educational resources were even altered to increase coverage and adjust the concept of jihad, with hundreds of thousands of books distributed on the topic leading to the eventual takeover by the Taleban (“students”) a decade later.
These battle hardened foreigners returned home to a less than enthusiastic reception as their governments did not share their zeal for “defending” Islam against foreign threats. This was the first flare of the supremacist narrative, which grounded not in al Qaeda, but in the GIA in Algeria, who, in the wake of the roll-back of a brief democratic moment by the army against the Islamist FIS in 1992, declared all of those outside of their group as “kafirs”, or disbelievers (ie those who knew the Truth but rejected it) and saw them all as viable targets to overthrow the government.
The result of this was almost 200,000 dead in a bloody decade for Algeria.
Al Qaeda on the other hand, led primarily by engineers, were more calculated and starting acting against their initial backers when they were forbidden from fighting in the battle against Saddam in the first Gulf war. King Fahd of Saudi Arabia instead turned to the West for support, angering Osama bin Laden in particular who believed no foreign forces should be in the land of the two mosques (Makkah and Medina) per his reading of Prophetic tradition. The long term goal of al Qaeda was always a Caliphate, but they believed this would be implemented by implementing Shariah law and education to get the people ready first.
As the 90s progressed and they started targeting Western targets, they played up a “grievance” narrative, appealing to key issues where many Muslims felt injustice such as the Israel-Palestine issue or repression by autocratic regimes. They did attack some Muslims, but until the second Gulf War their targets were primarily Western, the “far enemy”.
In many ways al Qaeda from their grainy videos and audio tapes from random caves very much cared about mass appeal and winning the “hearts and minds” of Muslims worldwide, viewing their heinous acts as necessary stepping stones to a noble goal.
Daesh is different.
Daesh grew from al Qaeda in Iraq with disaffected Sunni recruits who had once ruled Iraq, but now felt second class citizens to the Shia who formed the majority of the population and thus took control once the war was over. This group dissatisfaction melded with al Qaeda ideology and a clear sectarian message against a Shia “near enemy” to disrupt the traditional harmony of the region, where multiple faith groups had coexisted for centuries. Al Qaeda Central even publicly castigated the local group for its excesses in trying to stamp out “gray” areas in Iraq, dividing it into Shia and Sunni areas.
While al Qaeda in Iraq was defeated in a 2007 “surge” by 189,000 US troops allied to local tribes, these tribes were not given the rewards they were promised by the central government and still felt marginalised. This provided fertile ground for Daesh to expand, pushing a new religio-nationalistic message of supremacism as they split from al Qaeda in 2014 and established a so-called Caliphate. Daesh also emphasise their purported role in the coming Final Battle before the Apocalypse (said to be in Dabiq, the Syrian town their magazine is named after), reinforcing the black and white nature of their group.
In contrast to al Qaeda, the message of Daesh is selective and supremacist, either you are in their group or you are a target, which is why Muslims are their greatest victims.
They declare themselves apart from the Sunni Muslim majority, hate the Shia most of all and pick and choose from evidences to justify their excesses. As they have a purported Caliphate, the legal justifications for their actions become incredibly fuzzy as “public interest”, a tool of flexibility in Islamic law for governments, is widely used to pick weak or invalid positions over those agreed upon in Sunni Islam, using Islam as a cover for their intentions rather than as the basis for it.
Some recruitment channels remain based around grievance narratives and promises of glory, money or sex, but they have moved from being driven by community cheerleaders as al Qaeda had, to online and in small, secretive groups that are far more difficult to infiltrate.
Once radicalised, there is no grievance in a supremacist narrative that can be realistically addressed as, for example, existed with the IRA or Vietcong. This makes deprogramming far more difficult and unfortunately their recruitment channels are widening in Africa in particular as they operationalise terror.
By restricting freedoms and losing appreciation for the “gray” zones that make up our multicultural societies we are fighting the last battle against al Qaeda rather than the new one against Daesh. We must not do their work for them by agreeing with their absolutist vision of the world, but must build on the richness of our society to win this war.